[A frequent and valued commenter asked Ethics Alarms to examine this, and I am, as many of you know, always eager to delve into the history of My Favorite Men, the Presidents of the United States.]
Yesterday, NBC presented the nauseating display of a prominent member of Congress attempting to undermine the peaceful transfer of power after a legal and fair election. This was unprecedented, and not surprisingly. Only a hyper-partisan ethics dunce who believed that he was beyond criticism and accountability and who was confident that journalists would rationalize his conduct would do such a thing. In this regard, at least, Rep. John Lewis was correct. The news media had his back.
Before the actual interview was broadcast, news of Lewis’s statement was out regarding Lewis’s attack, and Donald Trump, as he has with Gold Star parents, beauty queens and others and award-winning actresses, had foolishly reacted with an insulting tweet that allowed his critics to shift public attention from the provocation to the target. Is Trump really incapable of learning how stupid this is, no matter how many times he suffers for it? Apparently.
Meanwhile, it was time for the news media to play defense for Lewis, because that’s what they do when Democrats misbehave.
Chuck Todd, the host of “Meet the Press,” used hsiMSNBC show “Meet the Press Daily” to argue that a prominent member of Congress claiming that an elected President isn’t legitimate is just not that big a deal, saying
“In case you missed it, Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), civil rights hero and icon, said Donald Trump does not believe is a legitimate president because of the Russian meddling in the election. Leaving aside how you feel about Lewis’ position, it’s not first time a president’s legitimacy has been questioned.”
Then, no doubt thanks to some intern’s searches on Google, he regaled his audience with misleading American history:
In 1824 when John Quincy Adams won the presidency over Andrew Jackson, despite getting clobbered in the popular vote, a lot of people questioned the legitimacy of his victory. In fact, this happens pretty much every time the popular vote loser moves into the White House.
After the 1876 election, Rutherford Hayes, who was called Ruther-fraud Hayes when Congress gave him the electoral majority.
The same in 1888 with Benjamin Harrison. You may remember the occasional cry of foul in 2000 when the Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount and George W. Bush won the election.
Sometimes, though, it has nothing to do with voting. When William Henry Harrison died a month after taking office in 1841, a lot of people didn’t accept the idea that as vice president John Tyler or any vice president for that matter could legitimately ascend to the presidency. A lot of people just called him an ‘acting president.’
Most recently, of course, the conservative right and and some Republicans claimed to doubt President Obama’s citizenship and therefore the legitimacy of his right to serve in the office of the presidency.
None of this is meant to pass judgment on John Lewis’ position, it’s just to remind us all this isn’t the first time someone has questioned the legitimacy of an American president. Surely won’t be the last.
This is what our political system does, we have this back and forth. It doesn’t make it any less shocking, frankly, to some of us when you do hear it from people with big influence. That’s all for tonight.
See? No big deal! Happens all the time! Everybody does it!
This may not be fake history, but it is definitely half-assed history, and inexcusably misleading. Contrary to what Todd told gullible MSNBC watchers, it is absolutely unprecedented for a sitting member of Congress to go on national TV and claim that a President-Elect is not “legitimate” when neither the vote totals nor the resulting Electoral College vote have been credibly challenged. Is it unusual for somebody to challenge the legitimacy of Presidential elections? No, all close elections turn up unscrupulous activists, crackpots and conspiracy theorists, but their accusations are usually long over by this point. Lewis’s high profile attack, however, is unique in many ways. It comes in the midst of a long, deep and intensifying attempt by angry progressives and Democrats to find some way, any way, to prevent Donald Trump from taking office. This has included recounts, appeals and threats to flip electors, challenges of the Electoral vote in Congress, demonstrations, riots, plans to disrupt the swearing in, legal theories that the Electoral College itself is unconstitutional, assertions by legal authorities that Trump could and should be impeached before he spends a day at work, accusations of treason and more. Todd’s attempt to brush it all off as just a typical election aftermath ignores the actual news: this has never happened before, it is playing with dynamite, and where it ends, nobody knows.
Lumping together all of the occasions where the popular vote winner didn’t get elected is Todd’s first deceit. (Do I think he knows what I am about to explain? No. I think he was seeking an excuse to justify the outrageous conduct of his party, the Democrats, and passing it along to the over-whelmingly progressive audience at MSNBC, so they would in turn put the video on Facebook and make their friends more ignorant.)
The only Presidential election in which the popular vote loser won in the Electoral College without any other substantive controversy over the results was the election of 1888, in which Republican Benjamin Harrison received approximately 90,000 popular votes fewer than Democrat Grover Cleveland, but carried the electoral college 233 to 168. Harrison’s victory was based upon two swing states, New York and Indiana, 1888’s version of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Although there were rumors that somehow Harrison’s supporters had bought him votes in his home state of Indiana, which came surprisingly close to voting for Grover, they were not significant and no one seriously argued that Harrison didn’t win fair and square. To say, as Todd did, that “the same” happened in 1888 with Benjamin Harrison, is fake history. Democrats were understandably upset to lose the Presidency despite winning the popular vote, but there were no announced boycotts of Harrison’s Inauguration, no national newspapers spreading dark theories of a stolen election, no members of Congress pronouncing Harrison “illegitimate.” I’ve searched the literature, and found nothing resembling today’s efforts by Democrats to overturn the election. If anything this significant occurred, I presume it would have left a mark. Thus the truth is this: the election most closely resembling Trump’s victory produced no equivalent to Lewis’s outburst, indeed nothing close to it.
The other controversies were materially different. In a four way Presidential candidate field in 1824, Andrew Jackson, the military hero of the War of 1812, won a plurality of the popular vote (43%, about what Bill Clinton won in 1992) and the largest number of electoral votes too, with ninety-nine. John Quincy Adams, the son of the second president and President Monroe’ secretary of state, came in second in the Electoral College with eighty-four votes. However, none of the four candidates (the others were Henry Clay and William Crawford) had received a majority of votes in the Electoral College, so the House of Representatives had to choose between the top two candidates, Adams and Jackson.
Henry Clay was Speaker of the House. Oh-oh. He hated Jackson, so he cut a deal to have his political allies vote for Adams, in return for Adams naming Clay as his Secretary of State, a position that had proved to be a stepping-stone to the presidency for the previous four holders of the office.
Jackson and his party cried foul, because it was foul: the deal was known as “The Corrupt Bargain.” Andrew Jackson in some ways was a 19th Century version of Donald Trump, and he was furious, but he didn’t try to lead a national effort to unseat Adams. He did use the deal to begin campaigning early as a populist solution to the kind of crooked crony politics that made Adams President.
A good argument could be made, then and now, that Adams’ election was NOT legitimate.
Todd similarly misrepresents the 1876 election wheeling and dealing that made Rutherford B. Hayes President despite losing the popular vote decisively to Democrat Samuel Tildon. This was a real mess: if today’s unscrupulous Democrats had been around then, we might have had another Civil War.
Tilden, who had won the unipopular vote with 4,284,020 votes to Hayes’ 4,036,572. But Tilden’s 184 electoral votes — the votes that would decide the Presidency — were still one short of a majority, while Hayes’ 165 electoral votes left him 20 votes shy. The Electoral votes of three Southern states and one Western state still had not been added to the totals. The 20 electoral votes remaining in dispute included one from Oregon and 19 from three Southern states that still retained Republican-controlled electoral boards: Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. The Oregon vote should have gone to Tilden and ended the contest, but the state’s GOP Governor appointed his crony as the state’s sole elector and he cast his vote for Harrison even though the Democrats had won the popular vote decisively. They also had won the vote in the three Southern states, but had done so through intimidation of black voters, violence and bribery.
Both parties claimed victory, and the controversy raged on for five months. Congress appointed a special bipartisan commission made up of Senators, Reps, and Supreme Court Justices. With time running out, the Commission brokered a deal with Southern Democrats. They would throw Tilden under the bus, if Harrison was committed to ending Reconstruction, pulling Northern troops out of the former Confederate states, and allowing them to govern themselves. This was the beginning of Jim Crow. The deal was finalized the day before the scheduled inauguration on March 5, 1877.
Now THAT was a stolen election. There were no riots, however, and no effort was made by Democrats to provoke the public to reject the results, as corrupt as it was. In great part, this was because Tilden, the victim of the backroom deal, quietly accepted his fate and went back to practicing law. It also helped that Hayes,genuine war hero, had nothing to do with the bargain, though he regarded himself as bound by it.
Obviously to everyone but Chuck Todd or his intern, the election of 1876 isn’t precedent for anything. It was sui generis.
The other election leading to accusations of illegitimacy was the infamous hanging chad squeaker in 2000. That one, however, was settled in the courts, leading Democrats to use the messy conclusion to undermine George W. Bush’s administration. Again, however, votes were in dispute. There was a genuine controversy. Nonetheless, the losing party, the Democrats, supported the Inauguration and submitted to the frustrating final result. No member of Congress went on TV to urge Democrats to “resist” the new President as “illegitimate.”
This part of Todd’ s CYA for 2016’s disgraceful Democratic Party conduct was especially misleading:
“When William Henry Harrison died a month after taking office in 1841, a lot of people didn’t accept the idea that as vice president John Tyler or any vice president for that matter could legitimately ascend to the presidency. A lot of people just called him an ‘acting president.'”
They did that because there were documents that strongly suggested that that’s all the Founders intended him to be. The Constitution of the United States then stated only that:
“In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President.”
This was ambiguous: did the Vice President become President and serve out the term, or did he just act as President until an election could be held to fill the vacancy? The Cabinet met within an hour of Harrison’s death and determined that Tyler would be “Vice-President acting President”. Tyler, however, had other ideas: he announced that he was the President of the United States, took the oath of office as President, and moved into the White House for the next four years. It was a bold move, and a smart one, but many questioned Tyler’s authority for good reason. Once he made the call, however, nobody of note called him “Acting President,” because he wasn’t one any more.
Incompetent or intentional, Todd’s over-simplified history was offered up to make the current effort to destabilize the Presidency seem less sinister and more justifiable than it is. John Lewis’s pre-swearing in attack on Donald Trump’s legitimacy is without precedent or justification. All the other election disputes Todd referenced were substantive, and even they didn’t result in anything approaching the Democratic attacks on Trump’s election, perhaps because politicians then realized how dangerous such conduct would be to a young nation.
Later, we’ll examine if there is any reason why President Trump shouldn’t regard the mainstream media as part of the opposition party, and treat it accordingly. Todd’s kind of shameless spin is a factor to be considered.
Pointer: Other Bill